Most common essay mistakes: Avoid using informal words, such as “stuff”

As you know, there are different levels or varieties of formality in language, including in writing and in speaking. (Note: The formality of English that I generally use to explain concepts is less formal than typical academic writing.)

For example, if you were hanging out with your friends, at some point in your conversation, you might say something like, "Yo, wassup? Whatcha thinking of doing today? I got a bunch of stuff I just gotta get done before I go out."

Of course this kind of speech if fine (and expected) for spoken English. But for formal writing, we all learn that we should avoid vague slang and informal language.

Short list of words that are too informal for academic essays

Here's a list of the words I most frequently see in my students' writing that I generally recommend they change:

  • kid
  • mom
  • dad
  • grandma
  • grandpa
  • stuff
  • a lot
  • a bunch
  • okay

You can probably guess how to change these words, but let me explain a bit more about each.

Why these words are considered informal

  • kid literally means juvenile goat (or juvenile sheep). And for some reason in English, we've decided that we should call our young people baby goats. But this doesn't mean we should carry this peculiarity over to our writing. I quite frequently see the word kid used in formal essays to refer to human children. Instead of kid, use child, girl, boy, etc.
  • mom, dad, grandma, and grandpa should be mother, father, grandmother, and grandfather, respectively. I think that's pretty straightforward–the former set represents the more affectionate language we use with family whereas the latter words are considered more formal.
  • stuff literally means material used as stuffing, such as what you put inside a pillow. In modern English, we use stuff to refer generally to things or other unspecified material or concepts, both concrete and abstract. But in writing, the word stuff is simply too vague and informal for this meaning.
  • a lot has several different meanings, such as the lot in drawing lots or a parking lot. We often use the word lot in informal English to mean much or many, which probably comes from the usage of the word lot to refer to a group of items, especially for sale. For example, visit eBay and search for a lot of fidget spinners, and you'll likely find people selling large numbers together. So, instead of a lot, use many, much, a plethora, myriad, etc.
  • a bunch literally refers to a group of the same kinds of things, such as a bunch of flowers, a bunch of bananas, or a bunch of grapes. In modern American English, we often use bunch to mean many. So, instead of writing that you have a bunch of ideas for how to raise money for the senior prom, just say you have many ideas.
  • guy is used in the US by most people to refer to men or older boys, and now in modern years, to all members of mixed-sex groups. In formal writing, you'd be better off using boy, teenager, man, etc.
  • lady sounds like it would be a nice way to refer to a woman, but it's safer just to say woman since lady technically refers to a woman with a certain status in society.
  • okay is one of my favorite words, and it's one of the best-known and most-used English words worldwide. But it's best used in speech and in informal writing. Try using a more precise word instead, such as acceptable or simply yes.
Will the real kids please stand up?

But how do I know?

Sometimes people aren't aware of which words are considered formal or informal. Fair enough–some of this truly is arbitrary.

One suggestion I've made that seems to help is to imagine which words you'd see on a government (or other) form you'd fill out–in the box where you put in the information about your parents, do you think you'd be more likely to see it labeled "Mother" or "Mom"? What about "Number of children in household" vs. "Number of kids in household"? It would be more common say use "Mother" and "Number of children in household" because this language is considered more formal (as well as more precise).

A few words that I didn't include

I'm keeping a mental list of words that I need to point out sometimes that I don't mention above.

Here's what I have now:

  • ton

Next steps

This is just a short list of a small set of words that I see most often in my students' writing. Of course, there are zillions more words that should be avoided as well.

But this list is a good start, and if you can take to heart the logic behind why these words don't quite fit in certain formal essays, you'll be one step closer to being a better writer.

Final note: Sometimes people ask me whether it's acceptable to use informal language when you're quoting the exact speech of someone. Of course! You can't go around changing people's words, so you should in fact (if the situation arises) use the quoted language exactly as it was spoken or written.

Most common SAT Essay mistakes: How to use the author’s name

When you're writing your SAT essay, you'll naturally need to make reference to the author or speaker throughout the essay. In my students' essays, I've seen many different ways of doing this, but there's really only one convention that we follow in college-level, formal writing in the US.

Handwritten SAT essay with comments (blurred for obfuscation)

Rule: In general, use the author's or speaker's full name the first time you need to mention her or him. After that, use her or his last name.

(Side note: Ugh. I wish I had a gender-neutral pronoun other than their.)

First, let's look at an example. Imagine you're reading an essay written by Zadie Smith about public libraries. You'll need to refer to her throughout your writing. (Note: The instructions state that Smith is a female; you should be sure to refer to her appropriately when you write.)

I have read essays with several different methods of referring to Smith. The first, and best, is simply to say "Smith." For example, "In her essay, Smith argues that public libraries are important centers of culture." This is the correct way–using Smith's last name (also referred to as the surname or family name).

Examples

Best: "Smith claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

This is correct–here we use Smith's last name.

Avoid: "Zadie claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

This is not standard. To my ears, when I hear this (or read it, as it were), I feel like the author is a friend of the writer.

This mistake isn't terribly common, but I do see it, so if you're using this format, you should know it's not considered standard for formal essays.

Avoid: "Zadie Smith claims that libraries exist for altruistic reasons."

I also see this form from time to time–using the writer's full name. We generally don't do this in formal writing mostly because it's just too time-consuming to write out the full name.

What about authors with titles? Or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?

View of the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial and over the "I Have a Dream" inscription (in Washington, D.C.)

I have read many effective essays that use titles, such as Dr. Nip, Professor Nguyen, and of course, Dr. King.

In an SAT essay, this is acceptable in my opinion, though MLA and APA formats omit titles for in-text citations.

Final note: Be consistent, do your best

Finally, the cardinal rule, as always, is to be consistent. If you go back and forth between using the author's first name and last name, you'll appear inconsistent. Inconsistency shows an undesirable lack of control that also reduces credibility. ("Why should I believe what you're writing if you're just spouting out random words?")

That said, SAT essay readers are hired from pools of teachers, and every single educator I've known has tried to find the good in students' writing; if it appears that you're doing your best (under SAT's timed conditions) to cite the author, I think most teachers would be inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Don’t call them “dramas”

Pointing up
Summary: Don’t call them dramas. Call them television programs.

Quick tip:┬áIf you’re writing about serialized Chinese television programs, don’t call them “dramas” in your essays. Instead, refer to them as Chinese television dramas (or Korean if they’re Korean, Mexican if they’re Mexican, etc.).

Why? Well, “drama” is a broad term that refers to many different types of performances, so “dramas” by itself is too vague. And whoever reads and scores your SAT essay may very likely not know what you mean if you simply write “dramas.”

Note: There is a large Chinese population in San Francisco, and many young “ABCs” (American-born Chinese) refer to these nighttime “soap operas” as dramas. Other people may refer to similar programs from their cultures with different terms. For example, some Spanish speakers may refer to them as “novelas.” If you’re using a word or term that many people have not heard, it’s always a good idea to explain that term in your writing so that the reader will not be confused.

For example, the following writing might be confusing for some readers:

*For example, in a drama I was watching, there was a poor but pretty girl who fell in love with a handsome and rich boy.

This would be better:

For example, in a Chinese television program I watched, there was a poor but pretty girl who fell in love with a handsome, rich boy.

One related point–avoid using television programs as examples. Literary works tend to get higher scores. But if you can’t think of anything else, a writing about a television program is better than not writing anything.